Review of Death and the Civil War

I would like to take this opportunity to remind you all that American Experience on PBS will be airing a documentary by Ric Burns (younger brother of filmmaker Ken Burns) entitled Death and the Civil War on Tuesday, September 18 at 8:00PM Eastern Time. The airing is timely, as it will be just after the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with the Battle of Antietam on September 17.

This film, based upon Drew Gilpin Faust’s landmark work This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), illustrated how the Civil War changed how Americans on both sides of the conflict perceived death. Prior to the war, influenced by the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, people believed in the concept of a “good death”, which involved dying at home, surrounded by loved ones, at peace and ready to go, and possibly and offering of last words to friends and family. This death was rooted in Christian tradition emerging in the nation through the early 19th century, where a new belief in a corporeal heaven, gained wide acceptance by the eve of war. This belief held that the deceased will gain a renewed body upon entering heaven and will reunite with loved ones who passed on before them, as well as the surviving relatives and friends when they die, with all living in everlasting peace and harmony with God.

As the war’s cruel reality shattered notions of a short, relatively bloodless conflict, Americans faced a new concept of death, as hundreds, and soon thousands, of young men were slaughtered in their prime, unable to enjoy the tranquility and dignity of a “good death”. Soldiers soon adapted to this changing circumstance and created the same conditions, in a modified fashion, for their dying comrades. The men were surrounded by photographs of loved ones, their army friends, and were able, when possible, die in relative peace. The deceased’s comrades also took on the unenviable task of notifying loved ones of the demise of the soldier, as well as arranging for shipment of effects and, if able, the body.

This documentary did an outstanding job of analyzing the harsh situation facing the nation in the early years of the war, that stands in stark contrast to how our nation treats the war dead today. Before and during the early years of the war, the federal government did not bear responsibility for identifying, accounting for, and treating its war dead. The result was that many dead were not identified initially, being buried in graves marked “Unknown”. Further, the government had no way of effective notification of casualties, with relatives relying upon the casualty reports in local papers, which could be inaccurate, creating increased anxiety among people as to the fate of their loved one serving, whether they were dead or not. Death was exacerbated by the lack of an ambulance corps, preventing early evacuation of wounded, which caused many to linger on the battlefield, dying of their wounds, without the comfort of the “good death”.

The film revolved around several themes: dying, burial, emotions around death, memorializing, identifying, and slavery. Each of these themes was well treated. Slavery was quite interesting, as the African-American experience with death was quite different through the horrors of slavery, which created a higher mortality possibility for them than whites. They created their own concept of the “good death”, which involved dying in the struggle for freedom. What was interesting to consider was that the historians involved in the film argued that contraband camps, where escaped slaves were initially housed, represented one of the first American examples of refugee camps, where conditions were quite harsh and fostered a higher mortality.

Beyond the overall content of the documentary, there were several things that stood out for me in this piece. One was the early mention of the casualty figure of 750,000, which is based upon new research that appeared in the journal Civil War History (December 2011), that is still gaining acceptance in the scholarly community and will take years to gain full recognition. The use of the figure will go far in terms of generating wider acceptance of the new calculations of just how many died in the war.

In addition to the use of new casualty figures, the story of 19th century methods of embalming and the role photographers played in bringing the savagery of death on the battlefield to Americans’ homes. Further, commemorating the dead, both through establishing national cemeteries and creating Memorial Day (on both sides of the Mason-Dixon) was an important subject. It was quite interesting to consider that without the Civil War, we likely would not have the system of national cemeteries, let alone an accounting of our war dead, at least as we know it. The story of Charleston blacks burying deceased Union POW’s from the racetrack prison camp and leading a commemoration ceremony and parade with Union forces in early May 1865 represented one of the earliest occurrences of what we know as Memorial Day.

With an all-star cast of historians and commentators, including Drew Gilpin Faust, Vincent Brown, David W. Blight, and George Will among others, Ric Burns has crafted a masterful documentary in the vein of his brother’s The Civil War. It combines the use of photographs, filmed scenes, and stirring narration, including powerful and emotional examples from the primary sources of the war, the writings of the people experiencing the war themselves. While Faust’s book is an important read and I urge everyone to read it, Death and the Civil War is a must-see documentary that illustrates the transformative effect of the war on our nation in the midst of its 150th anniversary.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Presents Death and the Civil War

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Presents Death and the Civil War

Premieres Tuesday, September 18, 2012

8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS

From acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, Death and the Civil War explores an essential but largely overlooked aspect of the most pivotal event in American history: the transformation of the nation by the death of an estimated 750,000 men – nearly two and a half percent of the population – in four dark and searing years from 1861 to 1865. With the coming of the Civil War, and the staggering and completely unprecedented casualties it ushered in, death entered the experience of the American people as it never had before – on a scale and in a manner no one had ever imagined possible, and under circumstances for which the nation would prove completely unprepared. The impact would permanently alter the character of the republic, the culture of the government and the psyche of the American people – down to this day.

“Transpose the percentage of dead that mid-19th-century America faced into our own time – seven million dead, if we had the same percentage,” says author Drew Gilpin Faust, on whose groundbreaking book, This Republic of Suffering, the film is based. “What would we as a nation today be like if we faced the loss of seven million individuals?”

Death and the Civil War tracks the increasingly lethal arc of the war, from the bloodless opening in 1861, through the chaos of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the unspeakable carnage of 1864 – down through the struggle, in the aftermath of the war, to cope with an American landscape littered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many unburied, most unidentified. The work of contending with death on this scale would propel extraordinary changes in the inner and outer life of all Americans – posing challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began – challenges that called forth remarkable and eventually heroic efforts on the part of individuals, groups and the government – as Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale.

Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries in America. No provisions for identifying the dead, or for notifying next of kin, or for providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans. No federal relief organizations, no effective ambulance corps, no adequate federal hospitals, no federal provisions for burying the dead. No Arlington Cemetery. No Memorial Day. Death and the Civil War will premiere on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 from 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam – to this day, the single bloodiest day in American history.

RIC BURNS (Producer/Director)

Ric Burns is best known for his acclaimed series New York: A Documentary Film, a sweeping chronicle of the city’s history, which garnered several honors, including two Emmy Awards and an Alfred I. DuPont- Columbia Award. Burns’ career began with the celebrated series The Civil War, which he produced with his brother, Ken Burns, and co-wrote with Geoffrey C. Ward. In 1991, Ric founded Steeplechase Films and has since written and directed a number of award winning films for PBS, including Coney Island, The Donner Party, The Way West, Eugene O’Neill, and Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. Most recently, for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Burns wrote, produced, and co-directed Tecumseh’s Vision, part two of the groundbreaking five-part miniseries We Shall Remain, and a film about the history of the whaling industry,

Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. A graduate of Columbia University and Cambridge University, Burns lives in New York City.

DREW GILPIN FAUST (Author, This Republic of Suffering) took office as Harvard University’s 28th president on July 1, 2007. A historian of the U.S. Civil War and the American South, Faust is also the Lincoln Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She previously served as founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2001-2007). Before coming to Radcliffe, Faust was the Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of six books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (January, 2008), which was awarded the 2009 Bancroft Prize, the New-York Historical Society 2009 American History Book Prize, and recognized by The New York Times as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2008.” Faust’s honors include awards in 1982 and 1996 for distinguished teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994 and the American Philosophical Society in 2004. She received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr in 1968, magna cum laude with honors in history, and master’s (1971) and doctoral (1975) degrees in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.

About AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

Television’s most-watched history series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been hailed as “peerless” (Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune), and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 14 George Foster Peabody Awards, four DuPont-Columbia Awards, and 30 Emmy Awards, including, most recently, Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking for Freedom Riders. Exclusive corporate funding for American Experience is provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance. Major funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Major funding for Death and the Civil War provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Additional Funding provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Dedicated To Strengthening America’s Future Through Education; the Nordblom Family Foundation and the Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation, members of the Documentary Investment Group; and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Television

Viewers. American Experience is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.

Publicity Contacts:

CaraMar Publicity

Mary Lugo   770-623-8190  lugo@negia.net

Cara White  843-881-1480  cara.white@mac.com

Abbe Harris 908-233-7990  abbe@caramar.net

For further info and photos visit http://www.pbs.org/pressroom

How many died?: New thoughts on the cost of the war

For much of the last several decades, the accepted figure for the number of dead was 620,000, making the Civil War the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. Now, that figure is being questioned. Initially reported in September, the December 2011 issue of the journal Civil War History (not affiliated with this blog) has an article dedicated to this subject. If you have access to a library, I urge you to check it out.

Using census data, some historians now believe that the war actually cost more in dead than we have thought, by almost twenty percent. According to these new studies, the number of dead ranges anywhere from 750,000 to as much as 850,000, which is much more staggering than the 620,000 we have accepted for so long.

This poses the biggest historical question, why is this important? First, it is important because it illustrates the problems of how we accounted for our war dead as a nation. Particularly, the case of African-American dead, as around 180,000 served in the war (I am not getting into a debate about black Confederates on this). Second, it brings a whole new significance to the war in American history in terms of its effect on population. That twenty percent or more died than previously believed means that a higher percentage of the population was killed and otherwise affected by the fighting. It also means that if we place such a figure against our contemporary population figures, the death toll becomes even more stark, as the new figures are almost three percent of the wartime population, which translates to roughly nine million dead in today’s figures. Finally, it raises questions as to whether all the dead from the war have been accounted, as while it may not seem important 150 years later, it is important to understanding how the military has handled the dead, both good and bad, from America’s conflicts.

Our understanding of death and the war was greatly aided by the publication of Drew Gilpin Faust’s marvelous book This Republic of Suffering (2008). Faust examined how death and the carnage of war influenced society and is one of the more groundbreaking studies within recent Civil War historiography. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for such findings to become accepted and how long before textbooks change the figures, but if the methods hold up, this will shape how this war is remembered for years to come.

Considering the top Civil War books written

Hats off to fellow scholar and blogger Bill Caraher for letting me know about this article from Salon.com. By the way, if you are even remotely interested in the ancient world and/or archaeology, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

The Salon article deals with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and encourages buffs of the conflict to read a book a month for the next year and offers a list of the top 12 books on the war. I found the selections rather telling, as many were works of popular history. However, three stood out as strong works that have great influence on the historiography of the war. Among them are David Blight’s Race and Reunion, Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, all are hard-hitting monographs. The interesting observation, which Bill posed to me in a question, was that Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox landed at number one on the list. Some may wonder, why Catton?

I believe that this is an interesting placement, and am surprised that Shelby Foote did not make the list. Catton produced some great works on the war and are deserving of high placement on must read lists. He wrote around the time of the centennial of the war and still resonates within the literature. While I generally agree with the list, I am left wondering how professional historians would alter this list. So, I leave fellow scholars with a challenge that I will also dwell upon and post. What twelve books should folks interested in the war read each month over the next year?

I hope you have all had a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday season and I wish you all a Happy New Year. Until next time, keep researching and writing.